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Leftist Allies Arrive In Cuba For Rally To Remember Fidel Castro

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Cuba, a huge crowd has gathered in Havana's Plaza of the Revolution, filling the wide square and spilling out onto side streets to pay their respects to the late Fidel Castro. Leftist allies have also arrived from around the world to join in a mass rally commemorating the communist leader. Castro's ashes will then be taken east, retracing in reverse his 1959 march on Havana.

I spoke with NPR's Carrie Kahn just as the rally began. And Carrie, what is it like there?

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: It is a big crowd here gathered, Ari. Many walked for miles on foot. Others were bussed in. There's large groups of students. There's families, military cadets, sport teams - you name it. They've been waiting for hours for this rally, and it's the largest expected in these nine days of official mourning planned to pay tribute to Castro.

SHAPIRO: Who are the VIPs that we mentioned?

KAHN: Well, many, as you said, from Latin America and Africa. Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro is here. That's Cuba's biggest benefactor these days. Evo Morales of Bolivia and even 92-year-old Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe showed up. We were just listening to a long speech by Jacob Zuma of South Africa. He spoke to the crowd, as did Rafael Correa of Ecuador.

You know, Castro is revered in many of those countries not just for his hardline politics and his unwavering, long - decades-long standoff with what he called U.S. imperialism. But Cuban doctors and professionals have been sent to many of these poor countries for years in so-called support brigades, and they have a lot of affection for Cuba and Castro.

Surprisingly, Vladimir Putin of Russia did not come, and many heads of states are just sending representatives and sitting it out. And the U.S. did not send an official delegation.

SHAPIRO: What are you hearing from the Cubans who, as you say, have walked for miles in some cases to be there?

KAHN: Well, of course the ones that are here are the ardent Castro supporters. Most were emotional. Many were crying - very solemn. A lot of youth were here taking photos and selfies of course. But I've spoken to many, too, out on the streets in recent days who are not as upset and hopeful that maybe a Cuba without Fidel will bring about more political and economic opening.

I also spoke with dissidents here. They've been very reserved during this mourning period. One well-known group, the Ladies in White, canceled their weekly protest. Mostly they said they didn't want to provoke the police. But the state has been very clear in how they want Castro's passing to unfold publicly. You know, we have these nine days of mourning. All the bars and discos are closed. There's no alcohol sales.

And Castro's 90-year-old body is not lying in state. He was cremated, and most public photos of him up are as a young rebel leader, not the frail, elderly man that had pretty much been out of the public eye for many years.

SHAPIRO: And as we mentioned, tomorrow Castro's remains start their journey east to Santiago de Cuba where his revolution was born, where he will be buried on Sunday. It has been almost six decades since Castro took power. How has Cuba changed since then?

KAHN: Incredibly, very much. At the time of the revolution, the economy was really dominated by foreign countries and the small oligarch. Castro of course nationalized all the industries and the economy while also providing education and health care to the country and raising literary standard - literacy standards and life expectancy rates for many.

But you know, nearly half a century of one-party rule and this iron fist control of the economy has been devastating for Cuba. Many Cubans have had a little bit more opening since Fidel turned over power to his younger brother 10 years ago. Many Cubans have opened private businesses but still with great restrictions. And there are no public protests or freedom - much freedom of expression.

So what Cuba will look like and whether its pace of change in opening will accelerate without Fidel Castro is the big question for the immediate future.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn speaking with us from Havana, Cuba. Thanks, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.